Danish mould or English cold?

Some years ago, I was planning to go abroad as part of my doctoral research project on the handling of mould issues in Danish rental housing. I had chosen England because I speak the language and because the climate and building styles are similar. When I started to explore how mould problems in rental housing are handled in the two countries, I could find very little research on it in the English context. The few papers I found had the common theme that in England mould problems are considered a part of the wider issue of fuel poverty, whereas in Denmark the damp and mould problem is a priority issue on its own.  

This difference became a focus of my research, and together with Professor Lucie Middlemiss from the University of Leeds, I began work on the research which has recently resulted in a paper comparing the two countries.

In the paper we explore the ways in which mould growth, dampness, and cold is understood in rental housing in England compared to Denmark, looking at how representations of mould problems in the two nations affect the way that this problem is managed. While the research presented in this paper took place in 2017-18 before the current Europe-wide energy crisis, it addresses topics that have only risen in relevance: the effect of cold and damp homes and how these issues are addressed by politicians and practitioners. Energy insecurity and the need to use energy more efficiently to counter the climate crisis will increase the issue in the future so it is very important to get the balance right between reducing energy use for heating and avoiding mould growth. 

Here we share are our key takeaways:  

What are the differences? 

Overall, we found that damp and mould in Denmark is seen as an issue in and of itself, whereas in England it is subsumed within ‘bigger’ problems such as cold homes and fuel poverty.  

More specifically, in Denmark, mould growth is commonly perceived as a serious health hazard, including in policy and legislation. People fear mould growth in their homes, and there is ample coverage in the media, in research projects, and in official guidelines. Dampness and mould are considered technical problems that require special professional expertise, caused by faulty buildings. Mould growth is officially declared a danger to the health and safety of housing occupants, and as a result it is a subject of prosecution and the responsibility of municipal obligation to supervise.  

Conversely, in England, damp and mould is not considered a high priority health issue but secondary to the problems of cold and fuel poverty, and even house mites. Building related issues caused by lack of maintenance and repair are referred to less than aspects related to occupant ‘density and activity’ as causes for damp and mould, which puts the blame on tenants and their household management and/or containment of the issues. There is a clear focus on representing condensation as the primary cause of mould, and an implication that this condensation is something within the occupant’s control. The landlord’s responsibility for maintaining buildings is downplayed. Furthermore, mould is commonly linked to adverse mental health effects, which suggests a cultural norm that mould is something people are ashamed of. 

Why are there differences? 

The different contexts in these two countries produce very different ways of understanding cold, damp and mould infested housing, resulting in different effects on occupant health and building conditions. 

Denmark tends to have better and more energy efficient buildings. Maintenance plans are mandatory for both social housing associations and private landlords and so building quality is high. Legally, the rental sector is regulated with a high degree of tenant protection – tenants can access easy redress for inadequate housing through rent control boards and other municipal bodies. Socially, Denmark does not consider itself to have a poverty problem, so poverty is not connected to damp and mould. It also has an extensive welfare state. There is high public awareness of mould as a problem through information campaigns and media coverage. Experts have played a key role in mainstreaming the issue, and Danes know that mould is dangerous.  

In England, housing stock is of generally poor quality, energy inefficient, and badly insulated and ventilated. We found, for example, that the average British home lost twice as much heat through the building shell as an average Danish home. The housing market is also not well regulated or managed. For example, estates – whether tower blocks or terraced housing – frequently fall under multiple ownerships. One block can contain owner occupiers, private sector tenants and council tenants. This situation leads to buildings being more expensive and difficult to repair and update without economies of scale, and results in outdated, poorly maintained, and mould growth prone buildings. The focus of the housing market also tends to be for-profit: meaning profit is prioritised over investments in maintenance. 

Private landlords tend not to be professionals in England, meaning they have little to no experience, or qualifications in building maintenance. Semantically, repairs rather than maintenance was the term used more frequently in stakeholder interviews, which indicates that landlords only act when something in the building is broken or damaged rather than engaging in operational maintenance. This wording may represent a cultural understanding that landlords are neither obliged or expected to act until building conditions reach a state where something is fully broken, not “just mouldy” or with a poor energy performance. In interviews undertaken for this project it was also clear that British rental laws mainly function to protect landlords. The fact that there are tenant guidelines on how to react if you are evicted because you asked for repairs – so called ‘revenge evictions’ – clearly show the risks that tenants with mould issues face.  

What do the differences mean in practice?  

Policy on mould in Denmark puts an emphasis on the landlords’ responsibility to supply quality buildings, where the focus on fuel poverty in England emphasises the tenants’ inability to afford adequate heating. This results in a situation in which the Danish municipal stakeholders interviewed told of tenants who might report mould problems to the municipality as a form of ‘revenge’ on their landlord for an unrelated dispute, whereas in England we see ‘revenge evictions’ of tenants in response to any complaints about the property.  

This distinction between the building being at fault or the occupant being at fault has resulted in the handling of mould problems in Denmark revolving around establishing fault. Whereas in England, the default onus is on tenants despite the causes of damp and mould emanating from multiple issues including many beyond tenants’ control.  

The way damp and mould is perceived in the two countries leaves very different options for tenants as to what they can expect from their landlord. Some types of mould can be alleviated through housekeeping and other types demand building repairs and improvements. The key lies in finding the right balance between individual housekeeping action and minimum standards for housing, affordable heating, and healthy homes as a human right. 


The contrasting approaches to the governance of mould and cold between these two nations suggests the potential for learning across borders, to ensure that the experience of mould and cold can be better alleviated. In countries where the interrelatedness of mould and fuel poverty is not recognised, a combined focus on mould and fuel poverty could perhaps pave the way for policies that take fuel or general poverty into account when handling mould issues in rental housing. Likewise, in countries that (like England) have a stronger focus on fuel poverty, this could benefit from being combined with a substantive attention to mould as a building related issue often related to lack of proper maintenance and not just a behavioural issue.